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Digital Mindfulness

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My colleague keeps dozens of computer windows open at once. On her desk sits an office phone, two cell phones, a computer, an iPad, and a television. She's a digital hoarder and is constantly in a state of agitated response to those that demand her attention. And she's not alone. We're all still getting used to life in the digital age. Decades ago, media theorist Marshall McLuhan asked, "How are we to get out of the maelstrom created by our own ingenuity?" That question is even more relevant today, as technology has become a ubiquitous presence in our lives.

In his book Hamlet's Blackberry, author William Powers gives us tips from the pages of history for navigating the virtual world with grace. Here are my favorites:

  • Roman philosopher Seneca chose a single idea to focus on each day -- a theme for the day. Though we're constantly bombarded by information and images, we can simplify to some extent by working in one computer window at a time, or at least on a single gadget at a time.
  • Shakespeare urged us to pick the right tool for the job at hand. Newest doesn't necessarily mean best. The tactile nature of a book might beat out the storage power of a Kindle when we're relaxing on a beach or snuggling up by a fire.
  • Socrates took long walks to escape the crowds of Athens. Our hundreds of online "friends" can make us feel smothered. By connecting with a micro-network like a book club or an alumni group, we can get more quality time out of our interactions.
  • Benjamin Franklin kept a "virtue diary," tracking his progress each day in a variety of dimensions. Like Ben we can build positive rituals into our digital lives. I periodically choose character strengths to foster in my online communication. "Prudence" might not sound like fun, but looking through its lens gives me a new perspective from which to connect.
  • Thoreau created a private haven just outside Concord, Mass. We can designate "Walden zones" to give ourselves some digital distance. Set boundaries and minimize distractions by picking specific places in your home for different online activities, and create sanctuaries of your own to recharge.

All tools take time to master. It's still the dawning of the digital age, and Powers reminds us that now is the time to find a healthy balance "between connected and disconnected, crowd and self, the outward life and the inward one." By learning from yesterday's teachers, maybe even screen addicts like my coworker can enjoy a healthier digital life.

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